Tuesday, June 12, 2007

SLANT-N-GO: mini-camp, mega-madness

METAIRIE, La.—Remember the mall concert madness of the late 1980s through early 1990s? You know, the thousands of screaming fans with T-shirts, hats and posters cramming into the food court or some other small space to see some young up-and-coming teen heartthrob send mall security into DEFCON 1?

Well, the New Orleans Saints' facility had that same energy during its mini-camp a week ago. Hundreds of people lined the street between the Saints home base and Zephyr Field while hundreds more looked both ways before running across Airline Highway, oops, Airline Drive just to get a chance to see the defending NFC South champs and soon-to-be trendy pick to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLII Feb. 3, 2008 at University of Phoenix Stadium.

This experience was a totally new one for me. I've covered the mini-camp last season and spent part of a day last fall in Jackson, Miss., for training camp at Millsaps College. It is one thing to cover the NFL as a member of the media, but its a whole other world watching it from a fan's point-of-view.

In a nutshell, watching the NFL as a reporter and then watching it as a regular spectator is sort of like flipping the channel from "Larry King Live" to "Total Request Live." Sure, the nice little media tag grants a good deal of access to the workouts and the players but the atmosphere is just stolid, business-like, and down right cold. That atmosphere is a not-so-subtle reminder of why some people call the NFL the "No Fun League."

On the other hand, the fans were what Southeastern head football coach Mike Lucas would call "crunked up." I arrived at the Saints facility about 45 minutes before the gates opened, and you could see just driving by the long line of would-be spectators that they were just getting warmed up.

The fans brought their energy and enthusiasm to the place — along with enough Saints paraphernalia to devote a good 2-hour block on either QVC or the Home Shopping Network. They came with their photographs, jerseys, footballs, mini- and full-sized replica helmets and just about anything else under the sun in the hopes that their favorite guy in black and gold puts their John Hancock on it.

I made that drive from Baton Rouge to Metairie with my 15-, 13- and 11-year old nephews thinking we would get there early enough to cop a good spot amongst the throngs of Saints faithful. WRONG!!! The traffic on Airline robbed me of a good 10 minutes, enough to put my group at least four football fields away from the gate to enter. Fellow Daily Star employee Tammy Pierson and her son saw me pass by, but they were in a far better position that my group was.

Enough about the celebrity sightings, let's get back to this experience. Saints officials opened the gate to the public around 9 a.m., and the fans were rushing in there like the Saints facility was a Foot Locker in the mid-90s and a new version of Air Jordans were just getting put on the shelves. Thousands of fans, along with this casual onlooker with puzzled nephews, swamped the area set aside for spectators and waited for nearly an hour before the first wave of Saints players jogged out for workouts.

A group of guys sitting around midfield started to belt out that familiar "Who Dat" chant, and the call-and-response spread quickly throughout the crowd. My nephews looked at me with some confusion, and I just told them to just sit back and enjoy the show.

It started to startle me when the crowd started chanting different things at the sight of different players.

When Deuce McAlister strolled out, the crowd broke out its "Deuce" chant. You know, the one where everybody yells out "DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSE!" whenever he gets the ball.

When Reggie Bush jogged out, that "REG-GIE! "REG-GIE" chant was as loud as the one he got before he broke that punt return for a TD against Tampa Bay in the Dome.

When Drew Brees came out, these two little kids just kept screaming his last name. They did this for about 30 minutes nonstop, trying to get the starting QB to acknowledge them while warming up. All they did in 30 minutes was drive me crazy. In fact, that's what all of the fans did.

The media guy in me wanted to get on a megaphone and say "Look, y'all. It's just mini-camp. It's not preseason. It's not mid-October. It's mini-camp in June." However, acting out on that thought would have gotten me branded a Saints hater and then probably would have received the beating of my life from the overexuberant Saints faithful.

So here's this media guy in fans clothing, hearing the "oohs" and "aahs" of the crowd as the team went into coverage drills pitting the DBs against the WRs. Ironically, I saw Robert Meachem running — albeit just as briefly as the Saints brass saw him run as well. I thought to myself what just was the payoff from me sitting out in the heat with thousands of diehards.

Well, the payoff was the joy on my 13- and 11-year old nephews' faces as they walked away with their T-shirts covered with autographs from some of their favorite players.

And that was well worth the headache.

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